27 mar 2019

In an 8-1 ruling issued Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court revoked a judgement of $315 million for victims of the USS Cole attack because the plaintiffs’ lawyers had sent the lawsuit to the wrong address.

The decision hinged on the question of whether the plaintiffs had properly served the Sudanese government, the defendant in the suit. In 2010, the victims’ lawyers sent the paperwork for the lawsuit to the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, D.C.; this was improper, the court ruled, because it should have been sent to Sudan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

The court noted that under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 (FSIA), a foreign state may be served for a lawsuit with a letter “to the head of the ministry of foreign affairs of the foreign state concerned.” Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito found that “most naturally read, [this] requires that a mailing be sent directly to the foreign minister’s office in the minister’s home country.”

The court acknowledged that while this decision was in line with the text of the law, it might not satisfy some observers’ sense of justice. “There are circumstances in which the rule of law demands adherence to strict requirements even when the equities of a particular case may seem to point in the opposite direction,” wrote Alito.

The Supreme Court’s decision agreed with the Trump administration’s position. The Justice Department encouraged the court to rule against the victims because the U.S. State Department’s embassies abroad typically reject judicial notices, and a decision allowing these notices to be delivered in the United States could affect how U.S. consulates are treated by other governments.

The victims objected on patriotic grounds. “Given this administration’s solicitude for veterans, its decision to side with a state sponsor of terrorism, against men and women who are seeking to recover for grievous injuries suffered in the service of our country, is inexplicable and distressing,” the plaintiffs wrote.


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